Essays · Movies

Why It’s Impossible To Make a Good Movie About Christopher Columbus

By  · Published on October 10th, 2016

It’s hardly new to note that Christopher Columbus is an exceedingly odd figure to celebrate. Neither the first European to reach North America ‐ lagging almost a half-millennium behind Leif Ericsson, who himself may not have even been first ‐ nor a competent explorer in any measurable way (he wildly misjudged the Earth’s size, despite it having been known since the Greeks), Columbus’ most significant achievement was bringing plague to the Americas, which ravaged the eastern part of what is now the United States, thinning the population to such a degree that when the Pilgrims arrived in the early 1600s, they were not immediately driven back into the ocean. And having established that presence, founded a nation based on genocide and exploitation of natural resources. Just like Columbus. Huh. Maybe it does make sense after all.

Anyway, the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’ arrival was (now infamously) marked by the release of not one but two Columbus movies. Both are bad, in distinct ways, but before getting into specifics there is a crucial reason why neither was ever going to be good. It’s fundamentally impossible to make good art premised on a lie. Even Orson Welles’ F For Fake, which is a great film, and is built like a Matroyshka doll of deceptions, including the very medium of film itself, being as it is a pale shadow of a captured image projected on a screen. Its central truth, that film itself lies, is itself truth. (It’s not a paradox. Open your third eye.) Columbus hagiography, on the other hand, is not. It springs from an inchoate, maybe even unacknowledged, need within Western culture for self-justification. It is then built on selective and often bad history, which is then grafted onto the established hero’s journey template within narrative. Even if accomplished with the finest and most exquisite aesthetic craft, this kind of work will ultimately have a hollow, meretricious core.

Neither of 1992’s Columbus films gets that far. The more interesting ‐ and bad ‐ of the two, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, features an array of talent that sounds like it came from a drunken game of box-office disaster “yes/and,” from a cast headed by Marlon Brando as Torquemada and Tom Selleck as the king of Spain and including pre-fame Catherine Zeta-Jones and Benicio del Toro. Columbus, played by Georges Corraface, is third-billed in his own movie. Mario Puzo was one of the writers. Longtime Bond director John Glen took over the helm from George P. Cosmatos, whose departure also led to the original stars walking off the project. It ended the careers of father-son producing team Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery is a stalwart in the unofficial subgenre of “holy shit that movie cost 5–6 times [$45 million in early 90s dollars] what it looks like it cost,” despite looking like the low-budget fare of an entire generation past. It is, of course, a perfect picture to watch after a few drinks when the moon is at just the right position in the sky. But consult your astrologer first, because otherwise it is dire.

The less entertaining of the two bears the gratuitously awful title 1492: Conquest of Paradise, and thanks to the ability of Ridley Scott to grace even the nothingest of nothingness with an attractive sheen it is often quite pretty to look at. Its cast also more closely resembles that of a real movie, headlined by Gerard Depardieu, an actor of great accomplishment. On the other hand, it’s called “Conquest of Paradise,” like, I’m not making that up for extra polemic points, it is actually holy shit called fucking “Conquest of Paradise,” that was on posters and stuff that were displayed in public. The movie itself shies away from open advocacy of brigandage and genocide, but its positing Columbus as being driven by the pure, innocent desire to explore does so tacitly. As is so often the case, taking the ostensible middle ground of avoiding controversy ends up yielding a far more offensive, and in this case ahistorical, work.

But, as above, even if these movies didn’t suck they were going to suck. Casting a man who was at best a bumbler, and at worst a genocidal madman as a hero and seeker of truth is a fundamental lie no work of art, even with the greatest efforts of the most talented artists ‐ and let’s not forget, for all his many subsequent missteps, Ridley Scott directed two of the greatest movies of all time ‐ can transcend. Take the day off from work, by all means, but don’t get it twisted, this is not a cause for celebration.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all